I remember how excited I was when my parents told me we were going to the circus. I’m going back more than 80 years when the famed Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus was an annual fixture at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. As a youngster how could I not be overwhelmed by the brassy music, the trapeze, the clowns, the elephants, the smells of the menagerie, and the total atmosphere of merriment, madness, and joy? The circus has just closed its doors forever and its tent has come down permanently.
Many years later, after giving up the prestigious role of Supreme Court Justice of the State of New York to become a trial lawyer, Finz & Finz, P.C., was retained to represent a 50-year-old married man with two grown children. Tragically, while participating in a charity bike-a-thon, with hundreds of others, a claimed defect in the road owned and maintained by New York State, caused him to be thrown from his bike, hitting the roadway with such impact as to render him a quadriplegic.
Despite the denials by the state that the road was safe for the bike-a-thon it authorized, the case was settled with the New York State Court of Claims just before trial for $5 million, the largest settlement for a negligence case in the Court of Claims at the time. Although no sum of money could ever undo the tragedy, at least our client was provided with financial security for the balance of his life.
Several years later, I received a call from him. He told me his daughter was getting married but did not have sufficient money for a honeymoon. She refused to accept any offerings from her father, not wanting to deplete any of the funds he needed for his 24-hour care. As a result, she sent off a letter to a TV show explaining her tragic circumstances.
Here comes the joyful part . . . Executives of the Barnum & Bailey circus heard of her plight and offered to finance a beautiful honeymoon, with gifts and cash included. There was one condition, however. The circus was beginning a two-week engagement at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. They agreed to provide a flawless honeymoon if the couple would marry in front of thousands of people who would attend the opening night. Further, such a ceremony would be held in the center ring! The couple was ecstatic. But they needed a judge to perform the ceremony. Thus, the call to me. Although I was no longer on the bench, I was still permitted by law to perform weddings in New York State. Of course, my answer was “yes.”
And there we were, the happy couple adorned in their beautiful wedding garments sitting in a white chariot, and me in my black judicial robe. I married them, center ring, amidst the congratulatory yells, screams, and brassy music of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus audience.
Finz & Finz, P.C., took on a most difficult case against the state, but in the end, a tragic bicycle accident on a New York State road ended successfully for the unfortunate victim we fought so aggressively to protect.
For just a short while, as confetti and balloons came down from the top of the coliseum, tragedy was replaced by joy, and it was the circus that was most responsible. Its closing will leave millions of people disappointed, but as for me, its demise will leave emotional memories of an evening I will never forget.